A tournament, or tourney, was a competition in the use of battle skills. The earliest ones were arranged by knights during times of peace as a means of keeping war-ready and of fending off boredom. Tournaments at first differed little from actual battles. The knights would form into two groups and charge each other in a free-for-all combat. Blunted weapons were used and safety zones were roped off where knights could put on or repair their armor. Captured knights had to pay ransom to secure their freedom.

Despite the safety measures, men were often killed in tournaments. Church officials, who looked at the tournaments as homicides being committed for sport, forced the knights to modify the tournaments. By the 12th century the mass battle of the knights, which came to be called the melee, was preceded by a series of more controlled single combats, called jousts, or tilts. In a joust, two armored knights spurred their horses into a headlong charge, trying to knock each other from the saddle with their heavy lances. The knight who fell was hors de combat (out of combat).

In time the melee was eliminated. The tourney became an elaborate festival filled with pageantry, where nobles and their ladies would come from great distances to share in the spectacle. Trumpets sounded by heralds opened the tournament, which was held in the lists (exhibition field). Each knight brought his retinue of servants, who set up his pavilion, or tent, hoisted his banner, and displayed his shield. The shield bore the heraldic symbols that identified the knight.